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Protecting the past: Mounds hold key to understanding Cherokee history

Protecting the past: Mounds hold key to understanding Cherokee history

Following the Little Tennessee River miles away from modern civilization in Franklin — past the pavement and subdivisions and through the grassy pastures that line the Cowee Valley — a large piece of Cherokee history remains.

An open field represents the remnants of a Cherokee village, but the man-made knoll in the distance represents so much more. Cowee Mound — and other platform-style mounds across the region — signifies the heart of the Cherokee people. 

Ben Steere, anthropology professor at Western Carolina University, said it was common for a tribal townhouse — a community structure that could fit several hundred people — to be built on top of these sacred mounds. In a ceremonial act, the people would extinguish the fire in their homes and rekindle it using the flame from the townhouse fire on top of the mound. 

“Mounds are really important and sacred places for the Cherokee — they contain the central, sacred fire that burns continually,” Steere said. “That fire makes a connection between the mound and the houses — it reinforces community. Those central fires are thought to be real and alive and mounds are seen as still having a fire inside so it’s really important to protect and not disturb them.”

Cowee Mound’s secluded location probably served its community well when it was a cultural epicenter in the 1600s and 1700s, and still protects the sacred ground to this day from human encroachment. Not all mounds in the region have been so fortunate. Western North Carolina was once home to dozens of Cherokee platform mounds, but Steere said heavy excavation in the late 19th century into the early 20th century led to the demise of several of them. The earliest archeological digs in Western North Carolina were done in the 1870s by the Valentine brothers to collect artifacts for their father Mann S. Valentine’s museum in Richmond, Virginia. At their father’s direction, the brothers pillaged through mounds in Haywood, Swain, Jackson and Cherokee counties, according to Steere’s research. In their search for Cherokee artifacts, they destructively excavated the Peachtree Mound, Garden Creek Mound, Wells Mound, Jasper Allen Mound, Kituwah Mound, Nununyi Mound, Birdtown Mound and Cullowhee Mound.

“Luckily, the Valentine brothers didn’t get out to Cowee Mound so it survived the brutal excavations, which makes it an even more important place. It didn’t suffer the same kind of looting earlier mounds did,” Steere said. 

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For all that archeologists know about Cowee and other mounds in the area, there’s still so much they have yet to discover and understand. Steere said the tradition of building mounds along the river valleys started around 100 A.D. Mounds like the Garden Creek site were low platform mounds used for special ceremonial events. The practice of building more grandiose mounds like Nikwasi Mound, which is located in the middle of downtown Franklin, started around 1000 A.D. These mounds were made to serve as the foundation for a chief’s house. 

Since 2011, Steere has been at the forefront of the Western North Carolina Mounds and Towns Project — a collaborative effort by the Coweeta Long Term Ecological Research Program at the University of Georgia, the Tribal Historic Preservation Office of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, and the Duke Energy Foundation. The mission is to have a better historical record of the Cherokee mounds for EBCI’s records. 

“We’ve tried to go out and better understand the mounds and townhouses and get a sense of their historic record of some of the poorly recorded sites,” Steere said. “We’ve been working with these other organizations to compile tribal data and archeological surveying to understand some of these mounds. Now we have great updated location data and chronological data.”

Having GIS mapping data of all the mounds is an important resource for the Tribal Historic Preservation Office of the EBCI, but Steere said it isn’t information that is intended for the public. Not much can be done to conceal the mounds located in plain sight like Nikwasi, but keeping exact locations secret from the public is key to keeping the remaining mounds protected from looting. You can find plenty of history about Cowee Mound online, but you won’t find directions on how to get there — and that’s the way The EBCI wants to keep it. 

In 2007, the EBCI was able to purchase 70 acres along the Little Tennessee River that included Cowee Mound with the help of Mainspring Conservation Trust (formerly Land Trust for the Little Tennessee) and the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund. A conservation easement on the property will protect it from any future development. 

The tribe continues to work toward purchasing property containing these scared mounds in order to preserve them for future generations. The EBCI purchased Kituwah Mound between Bryson City and Franklin in 1996 and Tallulah Mound in Robbinsville. 

“They are actively looking to purchase and protect those sites,” Steere said. 

Controversy has surrounded ownership of the Nikwasi Mound in downtown Franklin. The town of Franklin has owned the mound since 1946 when it was saved from development, but the EBCI has been trying to take over ownership and maintenance for a number of years. Not willing to hand the mound over, the town has tried to be more collaborative with the tribe when it comes to preserving and protecting the mound. 

Mainspring also has formed a committee of Cherokee and Macon residents to work toward an educational and preservation vision for the Nikwasi Mound, hoping to mend old wounds.

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